Corn Commentary

Consumers Have a Right to Know

In the California GMO Labeling debate, it seems everyone involved can agree upon one basic premise – consumers have a right to know. The debate occurs around exactly what that right entails.

Arguing to redefine terms such as “natural”, even to the exclusion of foods such as olive oil, proponents of the bill seem to believe consumers have a right to know exactly what their agenda-driven groups says that they do.

On the other hand, farmers believe that consumers have a right to know too. In a recent blog post, farmer Mike Haley carefully explained a side of the story that labeling loonies would prefer to push to the backburner.  Walking readers through the specific actions that this law would require of him, Haley shows the hidden costs of supporting the propositions hidden agenda.

Take a minute to see the true costs of this measure.  If it passes, everyone will pay.

Consumers have a right to know what they eat. They also have a right to know the consequences of their vote.

Praying for Those Affected by Drought

The American Farm Bureau Federation called for a National Day of Prayer for Drought Victims this week to remember the many individuals and families facing severe struggles due to this year’s devastating drought. While the “official” day has passed (it was Thursday August 23), no reason to stop praying and lots of reasons to start if you have not already.

References to St. Isidore the Farmer have been popping up lately in social media, invoking the intercession of the Catholic patron saint of farmers to pray for rain. This is being circulated even among non-Catholics. Might be a little late to pray for rain, but not too late to pray for farmers and ranchers hurt by the lack of it.

According to, St. Isidore was born in Madrid, Spain, about the year 1110. He came from a poor and humble family and worked as a farm hand from childhood. It is said that domestic beasts and birds showed their attachment to him because he was gentle and kind to them. His wife Maria is also considered a saint. In 1947, St. Isidore was officially named the special protector of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and American farmers. also has a lovely Novena prayer to St. Isidore which has beautiful reflections about farming as a partnership with God. Here is a short passage:

The farmer’s is a sacred calling because he is a collaborator with God in the work of His creation. … The farmer’s calling is one that must command great respect. Much knowledge and skill are required to manage well the farmstead with its land and fences, barns and granaries, tools, and machinery. Farming is among the greatest of human arts. The farmer must be an artisan and a craftsman, a capitalist, financier, manager, worker; a producer and a seller. He must know soil and seed, poultry and cattle; he must know when to till the soil, cultivate his fields, and harvest his crops. In the presence of his Lord the farmer should recall all this, not in a spirit of vainglory or pride, but in grateful appreciation of the calling that God gave him as a tiller of the soil. Praise and thanksgiving should rise in his heart as he reflects on the high regard the Lord has showered upon him and his work.

Olympic Gold Medalist Promotes Corn

While the Summer Olympics were going on in London, a gold medalist from the Winter Olympics was talking corn in Omaha at the American Coalition for Ethanol conference, thanks to the Nebraska Corn Board.

Curt Tomasevicz, a member of the 2010 U.S. Olympic 4-man bobsled team, grew up in a small Nebraska farming community and now helps promote corn in the Cornhusker State. “That agricultural-based community got me to the Olympics,” Curt said of his hometown of Shelby, Nebraska, which boasts a population of 690. “I learned those lessons from those corn farmers that work hard every day, knowing that there’s good days and bad days, good years and bad years.”

Listen to Curt’s remarks at ACE here: Curt Tomasevicz at ACE

In an interview with Curt, he told me why he is a spokesperson for the Nebraska Corn Board. “To have that kind of support coming from a farm-based community, the logical thing for me to do is try to give something back to them,” he said. “Farmers are not competing for gold medals but at the same time they’re working hard to produce something, like corn. They work just as hard, if not harder, than Olympians.” Curt does personal appearances for the Nebraska Corn Board around the state at agricultural and civic events, as well as schools.

Listen to my interview with Curt here: Curt Tomasevicz interview

Kim Clark, director of biofuels development for the Nebraska Corn Board, was also at the ACE conference and she not only introduced Curt at the luncheon where he spoke, but she also gave an update on what they are doing to help get more blender pumps out in the state. “The corn board feels blender pumps are really important, especially for the state of Nebraska, since we are the number two producer of ethanol,” she said, noting that they set aside $750,000 this year to help promote installation of pumps. There are nearly 20 in the state now and about 30 new pumps are expected to be installed within the next year.

One of their challenges is getting into the larger cities of Nebraska, like Omaha, where there are currently no blender pumps available. “With the new grant program of $40,000 per location, that has gotten a lot more retailers interested,” she said.

Listen to my interview with Kim here: NE Corn Board's Kim Clark

Two Newspapers, Two Paths to Farming

Sometimes, it is easy to lump people into a broad category. Elitist or plebian. Enviro-hippie or pollution-spewing Hummer nut. Midwestern bumpkin or coastal snob. While these labels make for a quick, easy way to write off people to whom we would prefer not listen, they do not account for our incredible ability as human beings to become deeper, more complex individuals. .

Two starkly different articles published this week on the role of farmers in modern America illustrated the importance of transformatory voices and the shared stories of people who have taken on unexpected roles can add nuance and insight to the national dialogue. A dialogue which, particularly in this election year, has grown shallow, partisan and generally uninformed.

Mark Bittman, a New York Times writer known more for his exquisite palate than economic aptitude, took on the state of U.S. farming from the viewpoint of a frequent diner at Manhattan’s upscale eateries.  Lamenting the inability of the general public to find the boutique produce his beloved celebre-chefs spend days chasing down, he boldly proposes overhauling all of agriculture to more closely resemble his Utopian vision. In Bittman’s America, everyone not only has seasonal access to the products he enjoys, which notably must not include a good steak, but also has the time and skill to lovingly coax them into gourmet dishes. The farmers whom he deems “real” likewise coax the finest heirloom tomatoes and leafy kale from one or two acres of land. He argues that that this will employ more Americans, who he presumes wish to be farmers, and will provide healthier food for all, with food stamp programs to help us all afford his posh produce.

A knee-jerk response would be to trash all intellectuals, painting them wish a broad brush as cluelessly out-of-touch with the vast majority of Americans who refuse to pay thirty bucks for a cup of soup, let alone spend countless hours in attempts to emulate it at home. Although tempting, this adds nothing to the dialogue.

Victor Davis Hanson does. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Hanson writes the prose equivalent of an ode to the farmers who persevere in this year’s drought. Speaking of the character of the people who stand tall while the drought beats down upon them, Hanson champions crop insurance and agricultural productivity. A writer from California’s abundant heartland who grew up on a farm, he knows that of which he speaks.

“The mystery isn’t that we have devastating droughts like this summer’s, but that so few Americans manage to produce so much food against such daunting odds,” he explains, noting this view comes from personal experiences with his family’s raisin farm.

Eloquently weaving in references to ancient Greek philosophy, Hanson provides a look at the farmer that many would rarely see. Having more experience on the farms of California than Kansas, Hanson’s view of the farmer and modern productivity could grow with further study into the importance of ethanol, but why throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?

Hanson says something that, particularly in this hot, volatile climate, ALL farmers need to hear. You are appreciated. Facing a natural disaster of historic proportions, he voices the support that most Americans feel for the men and women who feed them.

Conversely, Bittman also offers a valuable lesson, particularly when contrasted with Hanson. It is vital that American farmers create an open dialogue about what they do. Farmers already have an amazing story. They live it every day. In sharing it, they foster a cooperative, positive environment, something that should be valued in these divisive times.

One thing is for certain. If Manhattan’s elite chefs take charge of this conversation, a seriously skewed version of reality may gain a foothold.  It would be a shame. We should celebrate reality; we should work to show the strong, resilient spirit behind modern ag innovation.

At NCGA, we have been doing this for many years. For those with most interest in learning about the abundance and, yes, diversity, of American agriculture, we offer links to:

GMO Labeling Proponents Tell Consumers They Know Everything, Trust They Know Nothing

Hypocrisy has a strange way of coming to light during campaign season. For candidates and for ballot initiatives alike, the incongruent motivations of the groups promoting a particular vote often tanks what, at first glance, seemed to be a positive, simple campaign.  A ruling last week clarifying the ballot language to be used on California Proposition 37, the GMO-labeling law, brought the hypocritical intentions of the measures proponents to the forefront.

Simply, Prop. 37 backers claim consumers have a right to know if the food they purchase contains any ingredients which have been genetically modified. Playing off public fears of the unknown, they appeal to mass hysteria instead of the reasoned, scientific judgment of relevant authorities, including the World Health Organization and American Medical Association, that genetically engineered crops pose no health risk.

On the surface, the claims of those supporting the labeling-measure appear to be about consumer rights. From early on in the campaign, it became apparent this measure was different, as it would base a mandatory food label on something for an unscientific reason. Now, it appears these agenda-driven niche market proponents have masked another troubling provision with their consumer rights costume.

The labeling mandated in this proposition actually does not only target genetically modified ingredients, it also targets any processed food, even those without GE ingredients. In addition to the new labels, these supposed champions of the people would ban any processed food, regardless of what is actually in it, from claims of being “natural.”

Could this actually add to consumer confusion and hurt farmers? Yes, it most certainly could.

In a recent Farm Press interview, one California olive oil producer explained that, even though genetically modified olives do not even exist, his oils would no longer be able to be labeled as “natural” simply because the olives were processed into oil.

Does this seem a bit over the top to anyone? Or is anyone even paying attention?

If there is not a greater public outrage forming over situations like these, the later seems more probable. Which is troubling because, on its very surface, proponents of the labeling measure have cloaked it in the nearly sacred robes of a consumer’s right to information. Underneath those shiny garments lies something far less glorious, a regulation that would mandate the use of labels that would confuse and mislead shoppers.

If no one is paying attention now, how can they possibly be expected to understand what exactly they see should this pass? Seemingly, Yes on 37 campaigners hope that they pay just as little attention then.

Sorting out the Differences: The Legislative Progress of the Farm Bill and Disaster Assistance

This year’s farm bill actions have been difficult to keep track of, even for those of us that live inside the beltway and work on this issue almost every day.  NCGA has been working on the 2012 farm bill for almost four years and Congress began its formal work on the legislation this year.  But as drought conditions throughout the U.S. increasingly worsened, a disaster assistance package was also thrown into the mix, creating confusion for many.

Both pieces of legislation are extremely important to farmers across the country, and Congress has taken steps on each.  However, there is still work to be done.   To help differentiate between them, here is a quick summary of where we are – and what still needs to be done to get both the farm bill and disaster assistance package signed into law.

Where we are on the 2012 farm bill:

  • The Senate Agriculture Committee and the full Senate have both passed the legislation with a strong bipartisan vote.
  • The House Agriculture Committee passed a different version of the 2012 farm bill, but it has not been debated or considered by the entire House of Representatives.  Floor time has also not been scheduled.

What still needs to happen?

  • First, the full House of Representatives will need to vote on and pass the legislation as quickly as possible when they return from August recess.
  • Afterwards, House and Senate conferees will work out the differences between the two bills and reach a suitable compromise.
  • The final bill, or conference report, would then need to be voted on and passed by both chambers of Congress.
  • President Obama would then either sign the bill into law or veto it, sending it back to Congress.
  • The current law (the 2008 farm bill) expires September 30.

Where we are on the drought disaster assistance bill:

  • The full House of Representatives passed this legislation prior to leaving for August recess, and did so with minimal changes.
  • The full Senate has not considered the legislation.

What still needs to happen?

  • The full Senate will need to vote on and pass the legislation.
  • If there are differences between the House and Senate versions, a similar path will be used for conferees.
  • President Obama would then sign the bill into law or veto it, sending it back to Congress.

One important fact to point out is that the Senate version of the 2012 farm bill, which has been passed, does include disaster assistance programs.  However, in light of this year’s challenges, they may want to revisit these programs to include additional provisions for livestock and specialty crop producers.

Freaked Out about Food?

While reading convoluted media accounts of the droughts impact on any number of issues and hearing forceful statements about farming that have little, if any, basis in reality, one very simple piece of advice comes to mind. The smartest thing that someone can do is to admit what they don’t actually know.

Third-hand accounts and rampant rumors spread through poorly edited media accounts or completely unedited social media rants often form the basis for many people’s perceptions of food and farming.  The overwhelming majority of the U.S. population finds itself unable to personally interact with an industry that, although vital to life, it has been removed from for generations.

Treading metaphorical water in an attempt to keep up with daily challenges, well-intentioned, intelligent men and women may forget the source of their viewpoint yet ardently support the behaviors stemming from it.

Farmers have come out and opened their gates wide in an effort to share a slice of their lives and a glimpse into how the food on our nation’s table actually came to be. Be it through a campaign such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Corn Farmers Coalition or CommonGround, farmers have mobilized in an unprecedented manner to start a national conversation about the food that they grow and the profession they love.

Where does the conversation start? It starts by finding a common understanding between the people who grow food and those who buy it on what each group honestly does not know about the other.

To help lay groundwork for this dialogue, CommonGround spoke with moms across the country about feeding their families. The results show that even active, concerned parents may still have questions.

These questions can create a lot of guilt. From the nutritional value of organic foods to who actually grows food at all, real decisions are being made out of guilt that, upon closer examination, has no basis in the reality of modern agriculture. The choices can cost real dollars and cause real stress.

The solution is real conversation.

Take a moment to see if myths and misinformation cause unnecessary stress for your family or someone you know. Then, take a deep breath and relax.

Farm moms worry about what they feed their families too. They know how stressful trying to provide the best for your children can be. They want to do the same thing.

Then, take another moment to check out how these farmers want to help families across the country eat fearlessly. Literally walking consumers through what they do, the volunteers of CommonGround share what they do on their farms and explain why they do it.

An open, honest conversation about food is underway. The smartest thing that everyone can do is admit that both sides can learn so much from one another. Together, we can all become smarter about food and grow a healthier tomorrow.

Vilsack Champions Administration Support for Ethanol

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack demonstrated the Obama administration’s strong commitment to ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) by spending over an hour at the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) conference on Friday morning, right after the release of the new crop forecast showing lowered corn production due to the drought.

“This is an industry that is worth supporting,” he told the crowd of more than 250 ethanol industry leaders. “Which is why the president is supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard, and it’s why I’m supporting the Renewable Fuel Standard.”

In light of the lowered crop forecast for corn due to the drought, Vilsack noted that the RFS has built-in flexibilities and the market is responding as it should. “The market responds, the market reacts, the market pays attention, and we’re already seeing that,” he said.

Vilsack stressed that passage of a new “food farm and jobs bill” is the best way to help farmers and ranchers through the current drought situation. “It’s going to be critically important to rural America that we get this job done,” he said.

Listen to Vilsack’s remarks here: Secy Vilsack at ACE
Visack answers audience questions: Secy Vilsack Questions

2012 ACE Conference Photo Album

NCGA CEO Addresses ACE

National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) CEO Rick Tolman shared the farmer’s perspective to the American Coalition for Ethanol’s conference while addressing the group on the 2012 corn crop, the drought and NCGA’s support for ethanol and all markets for U.S. corn.

“It could all change tomorrow,” was the theme of Tolman’s talk, just hours after the USDA released a new crop forecast showing a 13% drop in corn production this year compared to last. “This too shall pass,” said Tolman. “We think the future’s going to be bright still.”

Tolman stressed the importance of withholding judgment on the final size of the total corn crop until more complete information is available and harvest is complete and reminded attendees that a few short months ago it appeared that farmers would produce a record crop, far exceeding forecast demand. Despite the significant short-term impact of the drought, he noted that conditions will improve, production will increase and ethanol will remain a key market for corn.

Tolman said NCGA is working to set the record straight about the RFS and correct misinformation that has been distributed by those who want to waive or dismantle the program. Most important is the inaccurate statement that more corn is used for ethanol than is used for livestock. “That is not true,” said Tolman. “More corn is GROUND for ethanol, but more still is consumed for livestock” when the co-product distillers grains is added to the equation.

Listen to my interview with Tolman at ACE: Interview with NCGA CEO Rick Tolman

Listen to Tolman’s comments at ACE: NCGA CEO Rick Tolman remarks at ACE

It May Sound Corny…

Corny ArtIt may sound corny, but lately it seems that a lot of people talk about the omnipresence of corn. While this fact is inarguable, the negative tone of many articles on the corn-centric nature of our lives seems befuddling.  This week, the Kansas City Star took a more insightful approach to exploring how people interact with the crop in their daily lives.  As it turns out, a world without corn doesn’t seems like such a great place to live.

The author carefully walks through what a day without corn might look like. Unable to brush his teeth, scramble a decent egg and with his clothes falling to rags, he finds that corn actually makes small improvements to an incredible number of the items that make our lives more pleasant, healthy or comfortable.

The properties inherent to corn make it our nation’s most abundant crop for a reason. Lending useful applications to products as varied as pharmaceuticals and fireworks, corn may really be the glue the binds us together in many ways.

Another kernel of wisdom, it helps to make that glue too.

Corn is king not because it rules over us. Corn it king because IT RULES! Take a minute to check out how many great, interesting, useful ways that corn is used.

Farmers across the country work hard year in and year out to make sure there is a supply of corn so that consumers can enjoy everything from cosmetics to cola.  Let’s support the great efforts of our nation’s hardworking family farmers, even if it may sound corny to some ears.

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